CHAPTER SELECTION FROM SHE SPEAKS, THEREFORE I AM:
MEMOIRS OF A WHITEHOUSE SPEECHWRITER
TV watchers who caught Hal Holbrook’s one-man act, “Mark Twain Tonight,” which was performed for President and Mrs. Bush in November 2001, might have noticed an odd-looking woman sitting directly behind the First Couple. Some might have thought that the woman looked a little drunk. And in a way, she was.
This is her story.
Of all the familiar faces I saw during the first few weeks at the White House, it was Gail’s that brought one of the broadest smiles to mine. Gail was a member of the old guard: she was the president’s speechwriter when he was governor, and we’d worked together for a number of years in the Texas governor’s press office.
At that time in Texas, our office was divided between the second floor of the Capitol, where Karen Hughes, Ray Sullivan and later Scott McClellan worked, and the basement, where Gail and I worked along with the governor’s director of advance operations, his web designer, and a bevy of interns. The basement office was a stuffy cubby space directly beneath the front steps of the capitol. This is the place where the legislators parked their horses before Texans drove cars. And it felt like it.
It was the kind of damp, dark, musty place that you might read about in a novel set in a British sweatshop at the turn of the 20th Century. We weren’t surprised to find a hazardous material detection squad investigating an unusual smell or two coming from our storage room. Even so, it was a stately basement office with nice carpet, historic artwork, lovely dark wood furniture, and large pillars running down the center of it – pillars whose sole purpose was to support the floor above us and whose placement, therefore, made talking and walking around them both a necessity and nuisance.
Between our basement office and the second-floor press office ran the governor’s private elevator, which he used to come and go from his office every day, and which we used to move between floors when then-Governor Bush wasn’t using it himself. Sometimes the governor invited us to share a ride with him. It was during one of those rides that I received my official George W. Bush nickname.
“Charles,” he cheerfully greeted, as we stepped on to the elevator together. “Governor,” I replied before the name sunk in. Too late. My responsive greeting was an acknowledgement and acceptance of the terms of his nickname agreement. The “Hello Charles” greeting continued for several days, in front of several people. After about a week I realized with alarm that the new name was going to stick.
In my defense I must say that I didn’t realize we were on the brink of a nickname revolution; that someday it would be noteworthy - popular, even - to sport a George W. Bush moniker. Had I known that I might one day be in the same nickname league as Pooty Putin, the President of Russia, I might have reconsidered. But no – at that time the only thing I knew was that I was not about to become permanently known around the office as “Charles.” Charlie was the nickname for me, Charlene, and if it was good enough for my family, well, then it would have to be good enough for the governor of Texas. With that in mind, I turned to Bush’s young aide, Israel Hernandez, and privately asked him to kindly inform the governor that I would much prefer to be called Charlie, not Charles. The next time I saw then-Governor Bush he said, “So you don’t like Charles, you like Charlie.” Red-faced, I mumbled, “Yes sir.” With that, my George W. Bush nickname was officially and permanently revoked.
It was in this place, at that time, where I learned what a marvelous character Gail Randall was.
Gail is something of a happy amalgamation of Seinfield’s Elaine and Peanuts’ Pigpen.
She is confident, observant, funny, and strong-willed; a nearly-contained explosion of intellect, creativity, clothing, hair, and papers. You must understand – writers have quirks, especially good ones. Gail is one of the best writers around, which makes her fabulously quirky.
At that time, she kept her hair just above the shoulders – brown, thick, curly. Few salons or hair products could tame it. The look was more spirited than frazzled, and I understood it well, because I also had unruly hair and lived in humid Austin, Texas.
Beyond the hair was the Gail Randall uniform: instead of a suit, she preferred long flowing skirts cinched at the waist with a wide belt. I want to say she wore Birkenstocks, but I can’t remember; she wouldn’t have been out of place in them. She wore collared shirts, buttoned to the top and battened down at the center with an assortment of very clever broaches or bolos – small works of art that each had a story.
Instead of a briefcase she carried a large satchel whose strap was too long, so the whole thing bounced off her hip when she walked. The satchel, like Gail, was never fully contained. It was stuffed with folders, newspapers, books, notepads, assorted pens, and perhaps a pacifier or Cheerio inserted by her toddler. And, because there are few bags big enough for Gail, she often carried a supplement of books and papers in her arms. Every morning, Gail cycloned into work in animated monologue, papers rattling, air swirling in a vortex behind her.
And yet she never seemed to lose anything; never seemed to be late, and she could organize a thought into a sentence or a speech that would make your ears hum happily.
Mention France to her, and she’d launch into reverie. Her entire demeanor would brighten at the mere thought of the place. She’d stop whatever she was doing, lean back, close her eyes, and gush in volumes about her love for the place, for the language, the people, the culture, the food, the sights, for Madalene…you name it. If you wanted to see a happy Gail, all you had to do was ask her about Paris.
Karen Hughes is brilliant for many reasons, but one of her greatest talents, I always thought, was her uncanny ability to read people and assemble a team. When the governor needed a speechwriter, Karen interviewed Gail for the job, knew what she had found, and hired her.
Gail was a seasoned reporter who was returning to work after having had a baby. She and her husband Ben, also a reporter, had relocated to Austin, where Ben had family. They’d lived all over the United States. In Colorado, Gail started out writing obituaries. She took a different approach to obits, choosing instead to write human-interest stories about how the widows or widowers met their loved ones and about the stories of their lives afterward. Gail said she was fascinated by the tale of two people meeting and falling in love. She thought her interviews were so much better than taking statistics over the phone. I thought so, too. She gave the bereaved a chance to relive the joys of life together. She took the same unique approach to jobs in New York and in Alaska, where she and Ben worked at competing newspapers. And she loved the competition.
After the baby, when Gail was ready to return to work, she looked to state government as I had – perhaps because the pay and benefits are better; perhaps because her husband already worked for the only newspaper in town. Certainly Karen Hughes knew Gail was talented; but she also knew that Gail was a handful. Yet Gail had the perfect personality for this particular team of Karen’s. She fit in like a favorite family cousin.
Before Gail’s first day, Karen called me into her office to prepare me. The conversation went something like, “I’ve hired a speechwriter for the governor. She’s a reporter -- a good writer who doesn’t have a lot of speechwriting experience. I want you to help her. Work closely with her because you know the style of the governor and first lady.”
“No problem,” I thought, picturing someone like me. And I could relate. I was a former reporter who didn’t have a lot of speechwriting experience. I’d been writing for Mrs. Bush for less than a year. But I’d written enough for the governor to have a good sense of his style. I could offer a bit of advice to the newbie.
When Gail plowed into the office days later, I realized she didn’t need a bit of help. There was no stopping Gail, and she was bound and determined to make her own way. That she did.
One of the first pictures she put on her new desk was a wedding picture. There were dogs in the picture. Dogs in the wedding. She also had pictures of (and later by) her daughter – a beautiful child who would become a part of our office family. Gail read tomes about nutrition and infant brain development while she was pregnant. Ate lots of protein. Produced a brilliant child. Sometimes too smart, Gail joked, but she was right. There’s no one quite like that kid.
One of the best things about the governor’s press office was the belief, which came from the top, that family comes first. You’ve read about it in articles and books about the elder Bushes. You’ve heard about it with the son. It’s absolutely true – in fact, being family-friendly was something of a mandate. And that meant the rules could be relaxed when it came to T-ball and soccer games, sick babies, and children in the workplace.
When we worked late nights or Gail’s baby was sick, Gail would bring her to work, much to the delight of the interns who loved to take turns playing with her. Eventually Gail’s daughter became a part of the system – she was a little pressure-relief valve of sorts – providing a sense of levity and reality that we needed from time to time. After a while, the governor wasn’t even surprised to see the little one toddling around when he marched through our office on his way home at night.
This was the environment that produced some of my favorite work for the Bushes, and the place where Gail and I became friends and Bush veterans. We came up with some great lines together.
One of my favorite bits was the banter we were allowed to write for various events in which Laura and George shared the stage, such as the Texas Book Festival and Barbara Bush’s literacy fund-raisers. Gail would show me a line she was developing, like:
“When I first met Laura, she was a shy librarian whose idea of oratory was ‘Shhh!’”
I’d add something for Mrs. Bush; we’d tinker around together and eventually come up with something like:
“When I first met George, he was a gregarious businessman whose idea of literature was the sports pages…”
One day Gail came sweeping into the office, Time Magazine in her hand, beaming. She pointed to the quotes page and said, “I made Time Magazine.” I read the line from a recent event, where Gail had the governor insisting on stage that he told his wife he wouldn’t buy anything new for this black-tie event. He said, “Read my lips: no new tuxes.”
Gail and I went our own ways in the shuffle of the Presidential campaign. She went to work on the campaign; I stayed behind in the Governor’s office and eventually moved over to Texas Attorney General John Cornyn’s office.
Eventually Mrs. Bush wanted me to come to Washington and write her speeches. I arrived in January 2001, and I heard that Gail had been hired as well. She would have an office not far from mine, in the Old Executive Office Building – the massive fortress that’s home to hundreds of mid-level staffers and some speechwriters.
Gail grew up in Maryland and had family in the area, and I knew from earlier conversations that she would be happy to be back home. She looked forward to the summer, sitting outside a local restaurant on a picnic bench with her family, eating fresh crab served on butcher paper.
By February I was settled into my office in the speechwriter’s section. Gail was a couple of doors down the hall, in the communications office, writing policy papers and speeches for senior-ranking administration officials, including Andrew Card. It wasn’t long before we found our routines and settled in to our new jobs and lives.
Several days a week she would blow into my office, throw herself down on my worn, blue loveseat, and make some sort of announcement that was surely and shortly followed by a humorous story or tirade. I looked forward to our conversations. She reminded me of home; of “normal” in a White House and a time that was anything but normal. The kids who staffed the common room outside my office (there were three of us to a suitewith this common room served by interns, fact-checkers, and a lower-level writer) grew to love her. Everyone wanted to be around Gail. She was that fun.
Yet, the same forces that swirl around Gail’s life and make it interesting eventually conspired against her. Turns out it was she, of all people, who had to get hit by a car.
It was November, around Thanksgiving. There was some talk that morning of Gail being missing in action. And it was the day of a big event – the Bushes were going to attend Hal Holbrook’s one-man-act, “Mark Twain Tonight,” and Gail and her husband were among those select few who were invited to attend the performance.
My friend Nidia, a White House intern from Texas, was Gail’s babysitter for the night, and she hadn’t seen or heard from her. Unimaginable that Gail would miss that day of work. Concern grew until nearly mid-day, when my colleague, Ed, walked into my office.
“You heard about Gail,” he said.
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